A view of Almaty from Kok Tobe Park, a popular hilltop tourist attraction accessible by cable car.

Stuck without passports in Kazakhstan, Russians who avoided the draft face a ticking clock

As hundreds of thousands of young men streamed into Central Asia to avoid the draft in Russia at the end of September, activists realized that many of the new arrivals were now jobless, homeless — and without legal papers.

The World

A view of Almaty from Kok Tobe Park, a popular hilltop tourist attraction accessible by cable car.

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

In a rented house on the outskirts of Almaty, Kazakhstan, a pot of borscht and a pan of dumplings sizzled on the stove. 

​​“I don’t trust anyone with it,” joked Ivan, who took charge of the cooking.

Like most of his housemates, Ivan, 33, has asked to go by only his first name, due to risks his wife and small daughter could face back home in Russia, if he speaks out against the government. 

Upstairs, 14 neatly made mattresses are divided among three bedrooms.

The shelter is one of four across Kazakhstan set up by the Anti-War Committee of Russia, an organization led by exiled members of Russia’s political opposition. The group also runs small housing programs in Turkey, Armenia and Poland.

As hundreds of thousands of young men streamed into Central Asia to avoid Russia's draft at the end of September, activists realized that many of the new arrivals were now jobless, homeless and without legal papers.

Ivan, a former outerwear store manager from Samara, Russia, tastes a pot of borscht before serving lunch.

Ivan, a former outerwear store manager from Samara, Russia, tastes a pot of borscht before serving lunch. 

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Ilya Molchanov, a student who volunteered to coordinate two shelters in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, said residents are accepted based on applications submitted online — prioritizing financial need, as well as vulnerability if they return to Russia.

“I check to see if they have a past of political activities. Whether they’ve participated in protests, whether they’re a member of opposition organizations,” Molchanov said. “We do this because we want people in Russia to be more encouraged to participate in politics.”

Ilya Molchanov, is a volunteer running the shelters in Almaty.

Ilya Molchanov, is a volunteer running the shelters in Almaty. 

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

The shelter’s residents universally condemn the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Most had considered leaving the country as the Russian government continued to arrest and torture anti-war protesters. The draft was the last straw.

One activist, who asked to remain completely anonymous due to concerns for his family, said he was served a draft notice after being arrested at an anti-draft protest in Moscow on Sept. 21. He left on a train as soon as he could.

“Those who have protested will be drafted,” he said. “And either they will disappear, or they’ll be thrown into a war.”

At the border, he was allowed to pass, but his brother was forced to stay back. He is not sure why and he said he is terrified of what will happen to him.

In the shelter, chores are shared. Meals are taken together. Some have started to take Kazakh language classes, or make travelog videos for YouTube. There’s a camaraderie here that began for some as they waited together in the freezing cold to cross the land border into Kazakhstan. 

“It was 20 hours of rain,” 21-year-old Daniel, from Moscow, said. They were forbidden from setting up tents, and instead relied on the kindness of locals to allow them to warm up in their homes. 

His place in line was written as a number on his hand: 4,216. When he made it to Almaty, he got it tattooed on his arm.

Daniel, a 21-year-old shelter resident from Moscow, sits down for a soup of dumplings and borscht, at the shelter in Almaty.

Daniel, a 21-year-old shelter resident from Moscow, sits down for a soup of dumplings and borscht, at the shelter in Almaty. 

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Now, 300 miles away from the Russian border, the shelter’s residents follow the news constantly. 

“Western media says that everyone in Russia needs to protest and kick Putin out,” Ivan said. “But people are dying. If you go against the government, they just kill you.”

Vyacheslav, an activist from Moscow, knows this first hand. Shortly before the draft announcement in September, Russian police raided the political organization where he worked. That was the moment he knew he had to leave.  

“I didn’t want to kill anyone. I didn’t want to support Putin. The choice is to shoot yourself, move to another country or go to jail,” he said. 

The problem was, he didn’t have an international passport.

He went to Kazakhstan because the country allows Russian citizens to enter, visa-free and with just a Russian national ID, known as a Russian domestic passport, for a 90-day stay.

Now, he’s figuring out how to get papers to travel and reunite somewhere outside of Russia with his wife, who is pregnant.

“Kazakhstan wasn’t prepared to accept more than 50,000 Russians who plan to stay permanently,” he said. “You can see it in the cost of rent. It’s going up every day.”

Shelter residents gather for a "family photo" outside one of two rented houses in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Shelter residents gather for a "family photo" outside one of two rented houses in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

Most of the young men don’t expect to return to Russia. Instead, they hope to secure visas to the US or Europe, and meet their families there. But Western nations are split on whether to offer asylum to Russians fleeing political persecution or the draft to fight in Ukraine.

Germany has generally accepted people fleeing the Russian draft, but Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have refused to offer refuge.

“Today, we hardly hand out any visas to Russians, and I want to keep it that way,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo told TV show De Zevende Dag on Sunday. “It would be a difficult signal in relation to the many Ukrainian refugees that we have taken in our country.”

Days after Putin’s draft announcement, US press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a White House press briefing that the US would recognize people who have spoken out against the invasion of Ukraine.

“We see that in just the last couple of days, as we see the protests continuing in Russia. So, anyone seeking refuge for persecution, regardless of their nationality, may apply for asylum in the United States and have their claim [adjudicated] on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

To people like Ivan, that was a green light — “She gave us hope,” he said.

It wasn’t until he arrived in Kazakhstan that he learned that you can only apply for asylum if you’re already on US soil.

While in Almaty, Ivan and his housemates spend their days visiting various embassies, consulates and UN offices, hoping to apply for visas. They’re usually turned away.

“They said, if you come, we will help you,” Ivan said. “But we came and nothing is happening. No one is helping.”

On a recent trip to the US consulate general, they were told they couldn’t meet with anyone, but were given paper forms to fill out as a first step to apply for a visa. In Russian, the pages asked about their political work and fears of returning to Russia.

“It doesn’t feel safe,” one activist said.

“If you share this information with the US government, what will happen with your relatives in Russia?”

Taking photos while hiking. Positive updates on social media keep family members back home from worrying too much.

Taking photos while hiking. Positive updates on social media keep family members back home from worrying too much. 

Credit:

Durrie Bouscaren/The World

For Ivan, a clothing store manager whose wife and young daughter are waiting for him back home in the small city of Samara, he said he doesn’t know what else to do now but wait. 

“We have no plan,” he said. “We don’t know what to do, where. I’m thinking.”

He has less than two months left to figure it out.

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